By Bob Nesoff
He served only one term as mayor of New York. It was one of the most contentious four-year periods in the Big Apple’s history, but whatever came his way, David Dinkins never lost his cool.
“I enjoyed being mayor,” Dinkins told NYLM. “If you like public service, you have to like people, especially children. This job is better than being mayor of any other city in the world. The only better job is (President) Obama’s.”
Today, at 88-years-old, Dinkins has taken on the role of an elder statesman, holding the respect of those he worked with and even some sitting across the aisle. In October his former employee and the current holder of the city’s top executive position, Bill deBlasio honored his former boss by naming the towering city Municipal Building the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building.
There’s a world of difference between the 1980s and the 21st Century. David Dinkins has managed to bridge that chasm with his wit and the wisdom that he accrued along the way through his public service.
In 1989 Dinkins, the then Manhattan Borough president, swept past Ed Koch who had held the post for three terms and then went on to take a close election from Rudy Giuliani. Four years later the situation was reversed and Giuliani took the post away from Dinkins.
But while he no longer held public office, many of his accomplishments are present to this day. He was devoted to the cultural life of New York City and was responsible for the on-going Fashion Week that has put New York in a position to challenge Paris as the fashion capital of the world.
He also helped institute Restaurant Week that today draws thousands of people to New York to sample the great variety of eateries here. During Restaurant Week the participating restaurants offer dishes at discounted prices to entice diners with the idea that they will become regular guests.
Broadway on Broadway, another Dinkins innovation presents free entertainment with entertainers from many of the shows currently appearing on The Great White Way giving performances for the public at large for free.
Dinkins receives little credit for initiating the Safe Streets, Safe City: Cops and Kids programs designed to give people a feeling of security. It was a comprehensive criminal justice program for reducing crime and expanding opportunities for the children of New York.
His administration initiated the revitalization of Times Square, the center of the world, cleaning it up from the less than desirable businesses that populated the area.
Following his departure from public office Dinkins has earned the respect of even those who opposed him while he served in a variety of offices, beginning in 1966 as a member of the New York Assembly. He was president of the New York Board of Elections, City Clerk and then Manhattan Borough President before assuming the mantle of Mayor.
“We have in New York 8.4 million people,” Dinkins said. “When I went to school in Harlem we were taught that New York is a melting pot. I said it was a gorgeous mosaic. We speak as many languages as at the U.N. In Queens alone, more than 100 languages are commonly spoken. Of course we have our problems and we are wrestling with them. I think Bill deBlasio has found his sea legs and is learning to tackle the problems.”
While he is a man of the past, David Dinkins still has both feet firmly planted in the present and is stepping out into the future.
“I had the good fortune to land a job at Columbia University,” he said. “I teach at the school of International Public Affairs. The grad students are so bright that I often learn more from them than they do from me.”
“I have guest lecturers who cover many subject areas such as race, health, immigration and fiscal policy. I encourage them to think in terms of public service; not only in terms of government and politics, which, if properly done, is public service. I tell them to do something for other people.”
“All over the world people are sitting in seats such as these at Columbia. My students come from all over the world and they are truly tomorrow’s students. We old folks owe them the ability to achieve their full potential.”
Calling on his personal contacts to pass their experience and wisdom along to his students, Dinkins has a vast reservoir to choose from. Among the speakers he has brought in to pass along wisdom were Hillary Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
As mayor one of his favorite duties was performing marriage ceremonies.
“I enjoyed doing that immensely. Normally after a mayor leaves office he is no longer authorized to marry people. I was able to do so as City Clerk and as mayor. I went to (Assembly Speaker) Shelly Silver and (Assemblyman) Denny Farrell and told them that I had never asked anything of them before. They amended the law so that former mayors could perform wedding ceremonies. I’ve done many, including several celebrities.”
Dinkins was reluctant to name any of them, but with a bit of prodding he performed a ceremony for the wedding of famed singer Harry Belafonte.
“Harry was not only a great performer, but he was an activist as well. He went to Mississippi when we were trying to get permission for black people to vote down there. Many activists were locked up and Harry Belafonte brought bail money to get them out of jail.”
“Harry persuaded Sidney Poitier to help out. They arrived in the dark of the night and the KKK was out intimidating people. Harry served as master of ceremonies at my inauguration.”
“There were great and grand moments,” Dinkins remembered. “I remember receiving Nelson Mandela who came to New York after he was released from 27 years of imprisonment in South Africa’s Robben Island. He stayed with us at Gracie Mansion.” “I remember saying to my wife that I thought the bed might not be long enough because he was so tall. The South African legend was reputed to have been 6’4” tall. Two years later during the Democratic National Convention in New York, Bill Clinton and Al Gore and I looked at pictures and saw that Clinton was just a tad taller than Mandela.”
A New Jersey native, born in Trenton, Dinkins served in the Marines. He was awarded the Congressional Gold medal.
“I didn’t feel as though I had done anything to deserve it. I called Roscoe Brown, a fighter pilot in the war who was the first to shoot down a German jet fighter. He said there was nothing wrong in my accepting the medal. A three-star general placed it around my neck.”
Dinkins remembers, not with any fondness, the fact that at the time American blacks were fighting with our armed forces against the Axis, German and Italian POWs were “…treated better than black Americans in the military down south.”
“Blacks could not shop or go to the movies down there,” he said with not much fondness.
When he ran for mayor against Rudy Giuliani, he was the target of what many people considered an unwarranted racial slur by comedian Jackie Mason. Mason frequently made comments many considered ill-advised and offensive. In this case, Mason, who was working on the Giuliani campaign, called Dinkins: “A fancy schvartza (black) with a bow tie.”
Condemnation was swift and almost universal. As a result, Mason was forced to be distanced from the Giuliani campaign.
“We’ve never spoken,” he says about Mason. “I’m familiar with him. People like that are unfortunate, but they do exist. Most people, I believe, are good and fair-minded. We Americans are pretty damned good and I have great hopes for the future.”
The former mayor has been married to “my bride,” Joyce, for 62 years. The couple has two children, David, 61, and Donna, 58.
“They are pretty good people and I give my bride credit for that.”
One of his proudest and most enduring achievements is the creation of the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, which is home to the U.S. Open and many major tournaments.
That’s hardly surprising as David Dinkins could be described as a “tennis fanatic.” One of his greatest dismays today is that he no longer can physically endure the strenuous game he loves so much, giving up the game two years ago.
“The situation is where I expend energy and get winded too quickly. The doctors can’t figure out why.”
Mayor Dinkins had a triple bypass several years ago.
“When I heard that Bill Clinton had a quadruple bypass, I sent him a note saying that I would have done the same, but that I didn’t have his money.”
“But we’ve come a long way,” he says. “Katrina Adams is the youngest person to head the U.S. Tennis Association. She was a professional player and things are so different today.”
The former mayor notes that in the early days blacks were not permitted to play at any of the white clubs. That also included such great athletes as Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.
“We’ve certainly come a long way from those days to now where a black woman is the head of the USTA.”
His greatest joy is working for children.
“I am a member of several non-profit groups dealing with young people, such as the Children’s Health Fund and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. This is my joy and it is important.”
While he has stepped back from partisan politics, he still has strong views on the state of things today.
“I think we are going to have our first woman president in Hillary Clinton and I am looking forward to it.”
He smiles when asked about Donald Trump. “I always assumed Donald was selling his brand and he was probably as surprised as anyone that he’s gotten the reception that he has.”
And those who have followed him:
“Rudy and I frequently do not see eye-to-eye. He made a campaign issue of the efforts to build the tennis stadium. He fought against the 99-year lease to the USTA. It was not built with city money and in the two weeks that the U.S. Open is played there more money is brought into the city, $70 million, than is brought in by the Yankees, Mets, Knicks and Rangers combined.”
Today the two warriors have no contact with each other.
“I rarely see him and our paths do not cross.”
Conversely he has high praise for both Michael Bloomberg and Bill deBlasio.
“Bill was in my administration and his wife wrote speeches for me. They met while working at City Hall. It’s a difficult job but he’ll do just fine.”
Of Bloomberg he says: “He’s a friend. People tend to forget that he was a great philanthropist before he became mayor. He got involved in many things and much of what he did was anonymous. He didn’t look for credit. We are better off because he was here.”
Dinkins still has family back in the New Jersey capital.
“I was born there in the covered wagon days,” he says with a smile. “We often go back for Thanksgiving and on Christmas day. The family also joins us in New York and we’ll have perhaps 30 people for dinner at the Water Club for some holidays.”
Today, aside from his educational duties at Columbia, David Dinkins serves on numerous boards and organizations.
At 88-years-old he still has the “get up and go” that is the envy of men far younger and although he won’t be back on the tennis court any time soon, he’ll keep on working for the foreseeable future.
And, while there was controversy during his tenure, the one thing he was able to take away from his time in City Hall is the fact that there was never a hint or taint of scandal of any sort that would impugn his honesty and integrity.
In a business where so many people at the top have fallen prey to avarice, David Dinkins never fears anyone he might face.